MANILA - North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Mendoza on Saturday maintained that they exercised maximum tolerance during the protests of farmers in Kidapawan City.

Speaking to ANC, Mendoza said she takes full responsibility over the government's actions, adding that she is ready to face any investigation.

Mendoza insisted that there was no dispersal during the farmers' protests and authorities merely conducted clearing operations along the national highway, which had been blocked by the protesters for four days.

She said government did not fall short in holding dialogues with the farmers and reminding them of their rights.

"They shut down the national highway that will transport goods, and all those businesses along the national highway, in that one-kilometer range, were affected. We followed all what is provided for by the manual, reminding them of their rights, went to dialogue. Unfortunately, they took until Friday, on the fourth day with no more permit for that assembly. You can imagine the maximum tolerance exerted by the local government unit and the police," she said.

"There was no dispersal, only clearing operations... We were not telling them to stop the rally. We just want to reclaim the national highway. There was a warning shot because if you can see the video, we have three PNP personnel hit by the rallyists and that was a warning shot for them.

"While it's true that there were two casualties from the rallyists, the medico legal for sure will tell you that it came from the stoning that was initiated by the rallyists," she added.

Mendoza also maintained that the local government was not remiss in its obligation to farmers.

She denied claims of delayed rice subsidy while saying that the protesters did not only include farmers but also members of leftist groups.

"Are they legitimate farmers? That's the first thing that we should ask ourselves. Are they from North Cotabato?" said Mendoza. "The issue here should never be rice. That's an insult. The issue here should never be the calamity funds. We are very prudent in the utilization of our calamity funds."

2 die in dispersal of hungry Kidapawan farmers

Two people were killed after Friday's clashes between police and around 5,000 drought-hit farmers demanding 15,000 sacks of rice from the government.

"We asked for rice. Instead, they gave us bullets," protest leader Norma Capuyan, who witnessed the melee, told AFP.

"The farmers are starving because they have nothing to eat. We went there looking for a solution."

The Philippines has been gripped by a strong El NiƱo dry spell since December which has hit food production, particularly in the conflict-wracked south which is home to the country's poorest and where more than half of the population is reliant on agriculture.

Panicked protesters picked their bloodied comrades from the highway and treated their wounds by the roadside as they were sprayed with water from firetrucks, Capuyan said.

"Everyone was angry. The police were hitting us. It was a real commotion," Capuyan said, adding that the rallyists had left the highway and retreated to a nearby church.

Capuyan claimed 116 protesters were wounded while 89 others were missing. The two gunshot fatalities were male farmers in their 40s, she said.

Police could not immediately confirm the fatalities, but said 40 of its men were also hurt in the ruckus, two of them in critical condition.

Authorities "exhausted all possible remedies" to end the protest peacefully, but farmers started the scuffle by throwing rocks and twigs, national police spokesman Chief Superintendent Wilben Mayor said in a statement.

Presidential spokesman Manolo Quezon said an investigation was underway.

"There is no reason why people must die for asking for assistance from their own government," he told reporters on Saturday.

The state weather bureau had warned last year that rainfall could decrease by as much as 80 percent during the drought, which is expected to last until the middle of this year. - With report from Agence France-Presse